People often ask why sanctuaries for endangered animals do not breed them, either for later release back into the wild or to keep them in sanctuaries or zoos so that they will not become extinct. Since these animals are so critically endangered or heading there fast, why can’t we just take the ones we have and breed them so that we can perpetuate their genetics and keep them in cages or let them go? These people mean well. Their desire to preserve wild animals, stop extinction, and re-populate their dwindling numbers is benevolent, although sorely misguided.
There are many problems with this way of thinking. People don’t realize that the ancestry of most of these individuals cannot be traced. Records are lacking for most of the animals that have been rescued by sanctuaries, so we have no idea what their genetics are, and most are probably of mixed origin. Breeding Bengal/Siberian tigers and releasing their genetically impure progeny into a jungle somewhere in Asia, even if it could be done, makes no conservation sense.
It also makes no sense logistically. Even for the sanctuaries that are within the countries with indigenous populations of said endangered animals, there is an issue of habituation to humans. How to breed wild animals and have them not be habituated to humans remains one of the biggest problems. They would be an easy target for poachers and hunters, as these wild animals would associate people with food. Being accustomed to humans is a certain death sentence for wild animals. A wild animal that approaches a human usually ends up being shot through no fault of their own.
Further taking tigers as an example, there are six subspecies left in the wild. The three subspecies that we have lost over the last century were unique, each one perfectly adapted through millions of years of evolution. Of course, the same is true of the remaining subspecies, each one adapted to the unique ecosystem in which they live and from which they have evolved for millions of years.
Breeding them for life in a cage just to prevent their “extinction” doesn’t make sense. Not only is it cruel, but their natural evolution just stops. It’s like taking a picture and putting it on the wall, like a snapshot, frozen in time. The species ceases to exist outside its environment, stops evolving, and merely becomes like an exhibit in a museum, if you will.
Yes, keeping tigers in cages is cruel, even if the cage in question is large with lots of enrichment, which is too often not the case. Tigers in the wild roam up to hundreds of square miles in their home ranges and have been known to swim up to nearly 20 miles at a time. They are very intelligent, sentient beings who are wired to hunt for their food and stake a territory so much larger than even the most well-intentioned humans can ever provide for them.
Taking cubs from their mothers and reintroducing them into the wild is another misguided notion of how to solve the extinction problem. Imagine taking a toddler from a human mother and dropping that child off at a campground. Would that child survive? Perhaps she would, but only if another human took pity on that child and took her in. Of course it makes no sense to take a tiger cub and dump him into the jungle. Without the mother to guide, protect, and teach him or her how to hunt and survive in the wild, that cub will not survive, just as a human toddler will not survive without protection and guidance for the first few years of its life. This is not even to mention the trauma that ensues by taking cubs away from their mothers. It’s traumatic for the mother and for the cub.
So what do we do to help preserve endangered species? The only answer is to preserve their habitat and allow them to live and breed on their own. We need to conserve and protect the species already living in their habitat. Left to their own devices and given the space, they will breed and thrive. Other ways to help are to NOT give our money to places that abuse animals in the name of “conservation,” such as paying to swim with or take a photo with a tiger or lion cub (pay-to-play schemes)…to give our money to organizations that are truly helping to make a difference, helping wild animals in the wild and conserving our wild places.
Sanctuaries wouldn’t be needed if exotic animal ownership were illegal, if wild animals weren’t used in circuses or for our entertainment. True sanctuaries are helping to make a difference for wild cats and other species of wildlife, and they do not breed for a life in a cage. Supporting them also contributes to saving these species in the wild. We need to channel our good intentions by educating ourselves and making informed decisions.
Some organizations making a difference to help cats and other endangered animals in the wild: